Using Emotional Intelligence To Prevent And Overcome Procrastination.


I spent 2 hours yesterday morning immobilised, halted, frozen. Well, not completely frozen; I was moving some paper around, typing the odd sentence and checking social media. My emails were all read, I’d tweeted twice, read an interesting Huffington post article and had 3 cups of tea. But that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing and I knew it. I had used all my usual time management tools; prioritised, planned and scheduled my day, but that wasn’t helping. What I planned to do yesterday was create some useful resources for our clients; a webinar, some top tips, perhaps an MP3 or even an e-Guide. But I was getting nowhere. Sound familiar?

Procrastination. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. We leave writing that report until the very last minute. Repeatedly putting it off until we have no choice but to cobble something together. We’ve all had days when we’ve decided that now is the best time to tidy our desks instead of preparing those presentation slides that are due this week (‘I’m helping myself get more organised so that I can really focus on the slides when I do create them…’). According to ‘Psychology Today’ 20% of us “chronically avoid tasks and deliberately look for distractions”.

Not only can procrastination lead to rushed work, missed deadlines and a lower quality result, it also has a damaging effect on our wellbeing. Procrastination can make us feel frustrated with ourselves that we’re not doing something we know we ‘should’ be doing. We may feel anxious about the piece of work itself or as time goes on get anxious about what will happen if we don’t do it. And of course we get stressed out as the deadline looms. The good news is that you have a, potentially untapped, resource that you can use to prevent this from happening…your Emotional Intelligence.

According to the originators of the theory, Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey, the ability based approach to Emotional Intelligence is “the ability to perceive emotion, integrate emotion to facilitate thought, understand emotions and to regulate emotions to promote personal growth”. Dr. Susan David ( adapted this to the easy to remember RUUM™ model that I use every day.

Each of the 4 areas of this ability model can help you to prevent and overcome procrastination. In this guide I’m going to show you how you can apply it next time you’re procrastinating, just like I did yesterday! Picture the scene…there’s an outstanding task you need to complete. You know you need to do it but you just can’t seem to get started. You’re easily distracted, undertaking less urgent or more enjoyable tasks instead of this one. You realise you’re procrastinating and so…

Step 1 – Recognising

The first step is to recognise how you are feeling. In one word how would you describe how you are feeling right now? It’s really important to take a time out to pause and connect with how you are feeling about the task. This isn’t easy for everyone to do. Some people find it hard to describe their feelings. Some aren’t open to the fact that our emotions are important. Practising mindfulness can help you to get more attuned to what’s going on internally. Just pausing and listening to yourself is a start. Often procrastination is about a fear of some kind. That may sound dramatic but fear comes in a variety of forms such as anxiety, nervousness, being apprehensive or feeling on edge. For me yesterday, I realised I was feeling worried.

Step 2 – Using

Identify how your feeling is affecting your thinking. Numerous studies in neuroscience and psychology have confirmed that our emotions affect our thinking. And contrary to popular belief that doesn’t mean that they inhibit it, it’s quite the opposite – emotions can help us to make better decisions. Often if we’re feeling a negative emotion (such as anxiety) we will find ourselves thinking negative thoughts that aren’t even connected to the current situation. This is where self-doubt can creep in. You might be thinking “I can’t do this” or “I’m not skilled enough”. Research also shows that certain moods are useful for certain tasks, it’s called Mood Task Match. For example while negative moods such as being worried are helpful for analytical tasks like checking a budget they’re not useful for creative tasks like creating useful resources for clients!

When I tackled my procrastination yesterday I realised that I didn’t have a mood task match and that my negative thinking was blocking my creativity. So, I knew that I had 2 choices A. Change the task to suit my mood. B. Change my mood to suit the task. For me, A wasn’t an option so I had to think about changing my mood. How easily one can change moods depends on another component of using emotion – our level of ‘sensations’ (the experience of emotion). Mine is average so I wouldn’t be able to easily switch moods like flicking a switch – I’d need to consciously change gear. But before I did that I needed to understand the emotions more fully.

Step 3 – Understanding

This involves thinking a bit more deeply to get insight into what’s causing us to procrastinate. We need to figure out what else we are feeling. We rarely feel just one thing at once, anyone who’s ever been at a job interview knows the combination of feelings we experience can seem contradictory. So, ask yourself “What else am I feeling?” Why are you really procrastinating? What’s going on for you? You may also be feeling something like boredom or reticence to begin something you don’t enjoy doing perhaps.

Next ask yourself “What caused me to feel this way?” Psychologists have established that each emotion comes about for 2 reasons 1) a universal reason which everyone will relate to no matter where they are in the world and 2) an individual, specific reason based on what’s important to you.  So if for example, like me, you’ve identified that you feel worried about the task at hand you can refer to the universal cause of fear to give you some insight as to why. The universal cause of fear is being physically or psychologically threatened. What is the specific threat for you? I mentioned that procrastination is often about fear. This could be anxiety because you don’t know how to do something, a worry that you’ll get it wrong (this was my concern) or being apprehensive because it’s too big a task.

Finally, when it comes to understanding emotion we need to pay attention and track how our feelings are progressing or will progress over time. When we’re procrastinating we’re not effectively predicting how we’ll feel tomorrow or the next day. How might that mild anxiety develop tomorrow when you’ve one less day to do the task?

Step 4 – Managing

There are multiple strategies we could now put in place to tackle the procrastination fully. Having gone through steps 1 to 3 we can be confident we’re choosing the strategies which are directed at the true cause of our procrastination and the feelings associated with it.

At this stage you can start by considering if your strategy for beating procrastination needs to be a short-term or long-term strategy. How often do you procrastinate? Is it a one off or a recurring theme? In my example this was a one off, so a short-term strategy was suitable. Step 2 had made me see that I needed to be in a positive mood to complete my creative task effectively. Research shows that there are 3 scientifically proven ways to improve your mood; exercise, music and social support. So, once I’d worked through the 4 steps I went for a walk. After just 10 minutes I was already thinking more clearly and had the idea to use my experience as the topic for my client resource.

If you find that you often procrastinate and it holds you back, you probably need a long-term strategy. Just going for a walk each time won’t be addressing the real issue. Susan David suggests considering 4 different areas when working on your long-term strategy;

  1. Behaviours: What actions can you take to help? For example breaking the work down into bite sized chunks.

  2. Situation: Do you need to change the environment? Maybe your crowded, open plan office isn’t a helpful thinking space.

  3. Emotions: Avoiding suppressing your feelings but not ruminating either.

  4. Thoughts: Can you re-frame thoughts to make them more helpful or remind yourself of how the task at hand is relevant to your goals and values.

And of course sometimes just considering these 4 steps can be a very useful process in itself!

If you type “procrastination” into Google you’ll get about 14,000,000 results. You’ll find many techniques for how to overcome it, lots of them focusing on time management strategies. I fully agree that time management techniques will absolutely help. However, if we’re not clear on why we are procrastinating in the first place, what’s underneath that behaviour and how we’re feeling the strategies just won’t be effective. Certainly not in the long term. By following these 4 steps you’ll improve your self-awareness, identify the cause not just the symptoms and have an effective strategy for tackling procrastination.

I really hope you found this e-guide useful. If you’d like to find out your actual level of Emotional Intelligence you can do so by taking the MSCEIT test. Just contact us to book.